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What would you give back in a minute?

The Banff Centre recently started curating Kickstarter crowd funding campaigns of alumni and artists of the Centre. Aaron Rosenberg, a composer from Massachusetts, managed to fundraise $3,579 to fund a 70-day stint here for the Banff Musicians in Residence program, during which time he aims to compose ‘Ascent’, a trio for piano, cello and violin. To meet his Kickstarter fundraising goal, Rosenberg offered a special incentive to prospective donors. I spoke to him about the fundraising process.

Aaron Rosenberg in the midst of composing a trio for piano, cello and violin

Aaron Rosenberg in the midst of composing a trio for piano, cello and violin

“What’s unique about my project is the rewards that I’m offering people. I’m writing short piano character pieces, about 1-2 minutes long, in homage to those who donated $50 or more to my campaign,” he said.

Drawing inspiration from the 19th century classical composers, primarily Chopin and his prelude pieces, Rosenberg will embark on creating 11 romantic short piano pieces once his residency here is finished. “I think it will be really fun, especially writing pieces for the people I know.”

For some people the compositions will be a minute-long piece, for others it will be two minutes. “I feel like it’s really something I can give back to them but it’s also something of an incentive for my next project when I’m finished here, which is to write a collection of piano character pieces. It would be an opus of mine, to write a collection of piano pieces based on certain people or their ideas.”

“The compositions are really portraits of the people who are giving me money. If I don’t know the people then they get to decide what I write about, the subject matter.”

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Buford Jones: “They bake the cake and I serve it”

Buford Jones is an award winning audio engineer from Texas. For the past 37 years he has been sound mixing live shows for some of the biggest names in the entertainment industry- David Bowie, Pink Floyd, George Harrison, Eric Clapton and Prince to name a few. He has also worked at the famous Abbey Road recording studios in London. He was at The Banff Centre recently as guest faculty for the Meyer Sound Workshop. I asked him about the tricks of the trade.

Sound mixer Buford Jones spent three days here for the Meyer Sound Workshop

What is the difference between being a studio sound mixer and a live sound mixer?

In the studio you’re in a controlled environment but on a live stage the acoustical environment is constantly changing. One day it can be very difficult to make things sound good and on another day it’s quite easy. That alone is a major challenge but it’s something you learn to cope with.

When some studio mixers go on the road they find it very disruptive not to have the sounds the way they are used to. The other thing with touring is that you only get one shot to get the sound right, but in the studio you rewind, go back and clean things up and keep cycling through it until we get it right. On the road it’s much more challenging. You get to do sound checks but on the road you’re lucky if you even get one sound check to prepare yourself for what’s going to happen in a live show.

David Bowie, Prince, Pink Floyd, Don Henley – you’ve worked with some big names. Who has been the most enjoyable artist to work with?

Linda Ronstadt. There are so many things I learned from that experience back in the 70’s. We first started working together in 1975 and through to 1980 when she toured. It was a step up for me and I was really learning a lot. I was still young and when I look back I think that’s where my whole career shaped itself.

How much time have you spent on the road?

After 37 solid years of touring I can think of only a three-month period not being on the road. For the first 10 years I think I was averaging nine months on the road, as things settled down it went down to maybe eight months and now I’d day I go on the road about three months of the year. It’s still enough travel enough to fill up five passports.

What keeps you going?

There’s something so special about doing a live show for 800 – 800,000 people; when all the elements come together it’s just priceless. You can’t describe it to family and friends you just have to be there. What keeps us driving is the inconsistency of it all because you’re always trying to get that amazing moment back. That’s the drive that keeps you going. I tried other areas of work but just keep coming back to the touring thing.

Can a live performance be greatly enhanced by the work of a sound engineer?

There’s some things that we can add to, to sweeten the cake, but I think when we overdo that we are taking away from the originality of it all. I remember in the mid 70’s I arrived in New York city and a cab driver asked me what I was doing in town and I told him I was in the live concert touring business, that I mix sound. And that I was mixing sound at that time for Linda Ronstadt. And he said, ‘ah,she bakes the cake and you serve it’. I’ve used that analogy ever since. In fact if I ever write a book that will be the name of it: ‘They Bake the Cake and I Serve It’.

Were there ever any major disasters during a live concert?

I don’t remember any show that didn’t come off on schedule but I do remember one show with David Bowie in France where the transformer ignited during the show and started a fireworks display. People in the audience just thought it was part of the show and started to cheer it on which was funny because it was actually a catastrophe.

What are the most important personal characteristics associated with being a live mixer?

A love for music is the number one. All the technical aspects are extremely important to understand and how to manipulate the equipment but it goes so way beyond that. I think that if you have a musical background it helps. I look at the musical console as an instrument. It’s your own way of playing a musical instrument. When you have that desire to play music and you collaborate with the artist you almost become like a band member. You have to understand musically what they are thinking and what they require. When you find that musical slot and you fit into it that’s when the true magic comes out.

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Peter Balkwill and the exploding “John A. MacDonald”

Puppet master Peter Balkwill, of the Old Trout Puppet Workshop and the Banff Centre Puppet Theatre Intensive. Photo: Rita Taylor.

Puppet master Peter Balkwill, of the Old Trout Puppet Workshop and the Banff Centre Puppet Theatre Intensive. Photo: Rita Taylor.

Peter Balkwill is the co-artistic director of Calgary’s Old Trout Puppet Workshop and faculty at The Banff Centre’s Puppet Theatre Intensive, a two-week exploration into the creative art of puppet theatre. Having toured over seven puppet theatre shows through Canada, the U.S., and Europe, he’s got more than a few stories to tell—including one about his largest puppet ever:

I once built an eight-foot-tall puppet head for a Canada Day stage. You could fit a Smart Car inside of it. I wanted to drive it across the country, actually. It was hilarious. You’d be driving down the highway and be like, ‘da **** is that? A giant head just passed us!’ It was for Canada Day in Ottawa, and so they could have made news, kept tabs on it journeying across the country from Calgary to the celebration.

Initially, it was going to be John A. MacDonald’s head, but he had a red nose, we didn’t hide the fact that he had a Scotch at, like, noon every day. The organizers were like ‘we can’t depict the first Prime Minister of Canada as an alcoholic’, so now it just had to be “Norbert the Old Man.” Two of us were inside it, pushing him around stage. We gave him an articulated jaw and said that he can speak but shouldn’t say much. The top of his head could lift up, fog came spewing out of the thing and confetti out the top of his head, he’d sneeze and confetti would shoot out his nose, and Canadian flags could pop out of his ears. And the organizers went ‘no, can’t do any of that stuff.’ They shut all the fun stuff down, and gave him pages and pages of text, and made him sing songs, and he was so inarticulate that in the TV footage I think I even saw Prime Minister Martin lean over to Adrienne Clarkson and say “WTF”?

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Ragga and Markus and Hreinn

Ragnheiður (Ragga) Gestsdóttir and Markús Þór Andrésson.

Ragnheiður (Ragga) Gestsdóttir and Markús Þór Andrésson.

To filmmakers Ragnheiður (Ragga) Gestsdóttir and Markús Þór Andrésson, this year’s frigid Polar Vortex weather felt just like home. The two Icelandic artists were in residence in December, putting the finishing touches on their film Time and Time and Again. The 50-minute film premieres at the DocPoint Helsinki Documentary Film Festival in Finland on January 26th.

During a few productive weeks, the pair shared their unfinished video project with our Film & Media crew, who worked closely with them to perfect the film’s sound, special effects, and post production. Thanks to some fantastic collaboration with our work studies, Ragga and Markús were able to fly home with a fully finished film.

The Film

The project follows the lives of two artists and a scientist who find themselves connected by a cosmic web. Based on the life and work of conceptual artist Hreinn Friðfinnsson, another Banff Centre alum, Time and Time and Again explores the elusive nature of time and memory, past and present.

Though perceived to be a documentary, Time and Time and Again is a curious piece of quasi-fictional work that plunges straight into Fridfinnsson’s surrealistic art and vision. Instead of pondering what makes this absurd and dramatic film a documentary or not, Ragga and Markús hope that audiences will also question what effect naming the film as documentary has on the viewing experience.

The film will be made available online after the festival season, but you can watch the trailer here.

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Maria Litwin’s winter weave

Visual artist Maria Flawia Litwin was at The Banff Centre recently for a self-directed residency.  I spoke to her about her project, which involved weaving, Banff National Park, and a six-foot loom.

Maria Flawia Litwin, To Get To Know You (2013), knitted yarn, courtesy the artist.

Maria Flawia Litwin, To Get To Know You (2013), knitted yarn, courtesy the artist.

I came to The Banff Centre with the intention of making a blanket for the National Park. I wanted to explore the idea of making something for a space that’s vast and unfeasible. You can’t leave anything behind and you can’t take anything away from the park, because it’s such a special environment, and a protected environment. So I thought of the idea of how this logically could happen, and what I came up with was an illusion, because realistically you could never really make a blanket for the park. I actually structured the loom in such a way that I could carry it outdoors. It has these portable legs, that I just bolt it into and I could take it anywhere. Schlepping that loom was not easy! It’s almost my height, and it’s icy out there, and cold, and wind catches the loom. It actually collapsed on me at a few points. But that’s where the magic happens.

To see more of Maria’s weaving project in action, click here.

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Mo Srivastava: getting to The Gods of Scrabble

Mo Srivastava is a geostatistician by trade, which means he travels the world applying statistics to the field of earth sciences – helping Florida’s state government count its alligator population, watching camel births in Mongolia. “It’s always really hard to count animals,” he tells me, “because they hide from you.” Srivastava is also the winner of the most recent CBC Canada Writes prize in creative nonfiction, for his piece The Gods of Scrabble. Part of the prize was a two-week writing residency in the Leighton Artists’ Colony. I met him in the Cardinal Studio just before Christmas.

Writer Mo Srivastava, in the Cardinal Studio. Photo: Rita Taylor.

Writer Mo Srivastava, in the Cardinal Studio. Photo: Rita Taylor.

Srivastava really started writing when he turned 50 and took a solo birthday canoe trip to reflect on the previous half-century, and realized he still wanted to write. The Canada Writes win was an added bonus, though he had originally planned to write about the death of his younger brother Paul. The day before entries were due, he’d composed only what he describes as a muddle of tortured words. So he switched gears and wrote about a memorable Scrabble game from his 20s. The submission felt rushed, but it taught him a valuable lesson about writing. “It’s useful to overcome that writing instinct that your work isn’t ready,” he says. “It’s probably better if it’s not your version of perfect because the reader interacts with the text and they generate their own set of thoughts and feelings.”

Srivastava brought an archive of ideas to Banff — a document titled Ten Writing Projects that soon grew to hold 13 ideas. The piece he worked most on during his Leighton residency is a fictional mystery. He hopes if it’s successful, he’ll be able to cross genres as a writer. “I’d be thought of as that person who isn’t just a writer of non-fiction short stories, but someone who’s just a good wordsmith, someone who can entertain in that artistic form,” he says.

I couldn’t resist asking Srivastava what makes a good Scrabble player — he says there are two kinds: people who get high point scores and people who are just fun to play with. His mother falls into the latter category. “She would invent words and dare us to challenge her,” he says, recalling the time she played “grish”. After debating with his sister whether one of them would challenge her and risk losing a turn, his mother quoted four lines she claimed were from Spenser, the last of which rhymed and ended on “grish”. “She was such a great wordsmith that she could pull that off,” Srivastava says. But he still challenged the word. “As soon as I went to the dictionary, Mum said, ‘Ah, it was worth a try!’”

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